Firm Finds Green Solution To Nuclear Contamination

Plants are grown on nuclear-tainted soil, then processed with Soviet-developed equipment to remove contaminants

IF Daniel Dawson, president and chief executive officer of Mechanical Technology Inc. (MTI), is right, the cost-saving solution to much of America's multibillion-dollar nuclear cleanup problem is on its way - from Russia.

Mr. Dawson's company, based in Columbus, Ohio, is currently waiting for crates filled with exotic equipment from the Central Scientific Research Laboratory-Buresvesnick, Nizhnye Novgorod, Russia.

``That is the same agency that used to work on developing weapons,'' Dawson says, sitting in front of a large bust of Abraham Lincoln and a series of inlaid Russian paintings in his suburban boardroom. ``Now their technology could be used to help clean up our environment.''

Specifically, Dawson has ordered a line of special processing equipment for use at the United States Department of Energy's Berkley Pit site in Butte, Mont., to clean up nuclear-contaminated soil and water.

The Russian equipment cost MTI $175,000 - about one-tenth the price, he says, that it would have cost if built in the US. The equipment uses Fraction Separation Technology (FST), MTI's proprietary technology also developed in the former Soviet Union.

FST is literally a green solution: It uses plants. The experimental process starts by growing alfalfa on radioactively contaminated soil. The alfalfa works as a biological pump to draw up heavy metals from the soil. The Russian-made FST equipment then refines the contaminated plant material and passes it through an electromagnetic membrane. This process removes pollutants and concentrates them into a small volume for disposal. Each alfalfa planting and FST processing can remove as much as 10 percent of the nuclear contamination in a field.

``Bioremediation looks extremely cost-efficient for cleaning low-levels of radioactive materials over large areas,'' says Steven Stein, director of program development for environmental waste management, at the Battelle Pacific Northwest Lab in Richland, Wash.

``We've known about the ability of plants to absorb radioactive materials for a long time,'' Mr. Stein says. ``However, it only has been recently that anyone recognized it as a business opportunity instead of a problem. Our own government has done research in this area off and on, but we never got to the commercial stage.''

Linda Reiser, director of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Cincinnati, says she also sees promise in bioremediation as a way of cleaning up radiation. ``The other technologies used to clean up radioactive materials have problems,'' she adds.

``Vitrification, the process of heating radioactive material into a glass, is expensive and creates problems of escaping gases,'' Ms. Reiser says. ``Cementation, containing the material in the cement, is used, but there are still questions about leakage. There is no perfect system, however. You always have tradeoffs.''

Meanwhile, Reiser is a witness to the market value of Soviet-technology transfer.

``When we looked for a way of creating a chemical barrier to prevent radioactive soil from blowing away, the only literature we could find came from the Soviet Union.'' Reiser (who is not connected with MTI) used the Russian literature as a basis to develop a barrier system and licensed it to Bartlett Nuclear in Plymouth, Mass.

However, Dawson and his MTI board, which includes Jacob Vydra, a Russian scientist, and William Schneider, a US Army career officer, have several barriers of their own to overcome. The primary one is a lack of public awareness of bioremediation as a possible solution for radiation pollution problems.

They have engaged Michael Koganov, one of the primary Soviet researchers working with FST, and introduced him to academic and governmental departments across the country. Dr. Koganov first got Soviet approval to develop the process after the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island.

``Soviet officials wanted to develop a way of making crops and crop land safe for planting after a nuclear accident or war,'' Dawson says.

The professional waste management community is similarly underinformed, Dawson says.

``Most people in the industry know about vitrification,'' says Jeff Harper, waste management specialist for Turner and Harper in Rockville, Md. ``It has the longest research history. That does not mean, however, that it is the best.''

One of the biggest customers for FST's environmental services will be the government. Despite DOE figures showing a need for $200 billion in cleanup of radioactive sites, the government can be a fickle customer. Well-publicized cost overruns have plagued the nuclear cleanup industry.

Yet ``the government does seem more receptive to emerging technologies today than in previous years,'' Stein says.

Among the early supporters of FST is Ohio Sen. John Glenn: ``I agree wholeheartedly that technology developed in the Ukraine and elsewhere in the former eastern block of nations must be explored by the United States.''

Dawson, meanwhile, has further designs for other marketable technologies from the former Soviet Union. Besides environmental problems, Dawson says that MTI will apply FST technology to biotechnology, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals.

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